Dire Straits – Dire Straits (1978): Review

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Produced by Muff Winwood
Label – Vertigo/Warner Bros

It’s to their credit that Dire Straits made such an impact, given the inclement wasteland for rock/pop music at the end of the 70s. Indeed, the UK musical landscape, which was dominated by punk, new wave and disco meant that any band that peddled light, relaxed, melodic rock would have to possess a huge amount of patience, drive and ultimately quality songs, allied with a strong live presence to gain any attention. When lead guitarist and vocalist Mark Knopfler formed the band along with brother David on rhythm guitar, John Illsley and Pick Withers on bass and drums, they combined their authentic instrumental abilities to create a relatively low key style, with a deliberate rough edge from their pub rock roots. Its easy to understand why the band took a while to ignite the radio airwaves and achieve the audience they deserved, but the lead single, “Sultans Of Swing” really is an irresistible force, a powerful hook, and a clever story of a band the singer was familiar with as they toured the London circuit. The song must have been the highlight of the five track demo offered to BBC disc jockey Charlie Gillett early in 1978, whose support helped spark the interest of the group’s U.K. label, Vertigo. As debut records go, “Dire Straits” is surprisingly astute, taut, with plenty of space to discover Mark Knopfler’s intricate guitar lines. His flow is conversational, a vocal line often followed by a picked retort, treating his Stratocaster like a call and response duet piece. The arrangements are tightly honed to highlight his playing, and a poetic imagery that’s obviously heavily influenced by Bob Dylan and JJ Cale, with strong references to working class life in the late 1970s.

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In many respects, “Dire Straits” has a clear chronological and geographical path, which takes the listener from the north east to London, the exact trail Knopfler took to gain attention and fame. “Down To The Waterline” brings the moody river noises, representing a romantic walk along the banks of the Tyne for the galloping opening shot. “Water Of Love’s” tempered, bossa nova may seem understated in comparison to the singer’s desperation for love, and yet the song has a nagging melody that’s hard to deny. Much of the remainder maintains a distinct character of its own. Muff Winwood’s direct production effort extols the depth of the band’s musical abilities, without having to resort to flashy studio techniques and unnecessary over dubbed filler. Dire Straits would go on to release infinitely better, more diverse long players, but as debut long players go, “Dire Straits” has a unique character, a distinct artistic quality that would become a trademark for the band.

It’s a fashion free and surprisingly commercial collection, and given the turbulent music scene of the time, sounds at ease with its place and direction. Knopfler, his band, and fans knew they were in it for a lot longer than most of the flash in the pan’s that littered the charts in 1978.

8/10

1 – Down To The Waterline (9)
2 – Water Of Love (8)
3 – Setting Me Up (7)
4 – Six Blade Knife (8)
5 – Southbound Again (8)
6 – Sultans Of Swing (10)
7 – In The Gallery (7)
8 – Wild West End (8)
9 – Lions (7)

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